Development Development
Women Making History
In the early 1900s, members of the Nineteenth Century Club, led by educator Dr. Lilian Johnson, attorney Eleanor McCormack, and Mabel C. Williams, superintendent of Shelby County Schools, took up the progressive crusade for better education in Tennessee.  They proposed a plan for a four-year women's college that ultimately led to the founding of the West Tennessee Normal School in 1912.

Since then, thousands of women have left their mark on the University of Memphis. We celebrate a few of the most influential University of Memphis women:

Dr. Rosie Phillips Bingham


Rosie Phillips Bingham, vice president for Student Affairs, became the University’s first African American female vice president when she assumed this position in 2003. She received the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Award in 1988 and the Authur S. Holmon Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.


Betty Booker-Parks was a Lady Tigers basketball player from 1976 to 1980. Ms. Booker-Parks ranked 19th nationally, holds 20 individual school records, including most games played, highest scoring average and highest field goal percentage. She ended her career with 2,835 points and was the first Lady Tiger to have her jersey retired. Ms. Booker-Parks was inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame in 1985, and was the first female student-athlete from the U of M to be inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis was one of two African-American women who were denied admission to then- Memphis State University in 1957-58. In 1966, she became the school’s first African American faculty member. She was one of the first African American women to receive a PhD from The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Howard University, LeMoyne-Owen College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Marguerite Cooper was the first woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Memphis. She taught at Christian Brothers University for more than 30 years. Dr. Cooper received the U of M’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2007.

In 1959, eight African American students integrated Memphis State, including Eleanor Grady, Sammie Burnett, Bertha Mae Rogers, Marvis LaVerne Kneeland, and Rose Blakney. These students were admitted only after "every possible attempt to prevent integration had failed," said then Dean R.M. Robeson.

Memphis State Eight

Helen Hardin, a longtime supporter of the University, gave a $2 million gift in 2008 to benefit high-ability students. In recognition of the significance of this gift, the University’s honors program, the largest honors program in the state of Tennessee, was named the “Helen Hardin Honors Program” in her honor.

Coach Mary Lou Johns


After the passage of Title IX in 1972, female athletes began to compete in intercollegiate sports for the first time since 1936. In 1976, the University began offering scholarships to female athletes; the Lady Tigers awarded six basketball scholarships to women that year.  Coach Mary Lou Johns led the Lady Tigers to fifteen consecutive winning seasons between 1973-1987.  


Eleanor McCormack, attorney, was a member and president of the Nineteenth Century Club. She was a tireless worker in the campaign to bring the West Tennessee Normal Schoolto Memphis in 1911, and delivered the first commencement address at the school on May 16, 1913.

Pobrecita Richerson Mynders


Pobrecita Richerson Mynders was the wife of the West Tennessee Normal School’s first president, Seymour Mynders, and mother of Elizabeth Mynders, whose portrait hangs in Mynders Hall and for whom Mynders Hall is named. Known to students as “Mother” Mynders, she was the school’s first librarian and first “house mother.”

Dr. Shirley C. Raines




In 2001, Dr. Shirley C. Raines, was chosen as the eleventh president of the University of Memphis, the first woman to hold this position.


Nellie Angel Smith served as professor of Latin and head of the Department of Languages, and was the first dean of women, serving from 1927 to 1947. She retired in 1952. Smith Residence Hall was named in her honor in 1962.

Learn More

Investing in Women

The Power of Women

Profiles in Philanthropy




For additional information, please contact Joanna Curtis.

Phone: 901.678.5274


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Last Updated: 8/11/14